The most influential force in the great renaissance of occultism in the late nineteenth century, the Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 by the colourful Russian occultist and adventuress Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, her American promoter Col. Henry S. Olcott, and a handful of other students of the occult. According to Blavatsky, the society was sponsored and supported by the Brotherhood of Luxor, an American occult secret society.
During its first two years the Theosophical Society was simply one more group in the crowded New York occult scene, sponsoring lectures by local authors and researchers. For a time it operated as a secret society with its own passwords and grades of initiation, though these went by the board as the fledgling Society struggled to define itself. The publication of Blavatsky’s first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), ended this period and transformed the Society into a major player in the western world’s occult scene.
Isis Unveiled was the largest and most comprehensive occult critique of religious orthodoxy and scientific materialism in its time, a sprawling two-volume work that challenged nearly all the preconceptions of its Victorian audience. Much of the material in it was drawn from the occult literature of the time, especially the writings of Eliphas Lévi and P.B. Randolph, but it presented an extraordinary and rather quirky occult philosophy all its own, different in many ways from the later system of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888).
The year after Isis Unveiled saw print, Blavatsky and Olcott travelled to India by way of England and established a headquarters for the Society at Adyar, near Bombay. From 1879 to 1884 Blavatsky remained at Adyar, writing articles, performing minor miracles to awe visitors, and working closely with the Arya Samaj, a movement for Indian national and religious revival, against the British colonial government. During her stay in India she stopped talking about the Brotherhood of Luxor and began claiming that her teachings came from two Tibetan Mahatmas, Koot Hoomi (Kuthumi) and El Morya. Historian K. Paul Johnson, in a controversial book on Theosophical history, has argued that these names were pseudonyms for two important Indian political and religious leaders of the time.
In 1884 Blavatsky and Olcott travelled to England on a lecture tour that attracted huge crowds, and established several European sections of the Theosophical Society. During their absence from Adyar, however, an investigator from the Society for Psychical Research arrived there and learned from Blavatsky’s housekeeper Emma Coulombe that the “miracles” were simple sleight-of-hand tricks. The scandal that followed earned newspaper headlines on five continents. In the aftermath of the revelations, Olcott forbade Blavatsky to stay in Adyar, and she moved to London, where she spent the rest of her life.
While at London she wrote, lectured, and debated with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an influential magical order of the time. She also founded the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, an inner circle that received instruction in practical occultism. Finally, and most significantly, she wrote a second vast book, The Secret Doctrine, which was published in 1888. Unlike Isis Unveiled, which drew most of its material from western occult sources, The Secret Doctrine took its inspiration from Hindu traditions and presented an immense vision of a cyclic cosmos in which souls, called monads in Theosophy, descend from cosmic unity to pass through a series of evolutionary journeys through the elemental, mineral, vegetable, animal, and human kingdoms and beyond. In order to pass through the human level, the souls of humanity must make seven “rounds” or circuits of a sequence of seven “globes” or worlds, while being reincarnated in seven different root races on each world during each sequence. Today’s humanity is on the fourth globe of the fourth round; Europeans, Indians, and other Indo-Europeans are believed to belong to the fifth, or Aryan root race, while other humans belong to the fourth or Atlantean root race.
This is only a first glimpse at a portion of the sprawling cosmos of The Secret Doctrine, but it may help convey the flavor of the book’s dizzying complexities. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891 these teachings became the Society’s core doctrine, and were developed and discussed in dozens of books by later authors. The new head of the Society, Fabian socialist and liberal political activist Annie Besant, helped transform The Secret Doctrine into an orthodoxy, and brought the Society into alliance with Co-Masonry, an offshoot of Freemasonry that admits women as well as men to membership, and the Liberal Catholic Church, an esoteric Christian church. Schisms followed; William Quan Judge, a leading American Theosophist, broke with Besant and established a rival organization in America in 1895; widely respected occult scholar G.R.S. Mead left in 1909 to found the Quest Society, and Robert Crosbie and another dissident group founded the United Lodge of Theosophists in Los Angeles the same year. Most damaging of all was the defection of Rudolf Steiner, former secretary of the Society’s German section, who left in 1912 and took 90 percent of German Theosophists with him into his newly founded Anthroposophical Society.
Steiner’s split was caused by one of Besant’s most serious missteps – her identification of a teenage boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti as the next World Teacher, a messianic figure who would rank with Jesus and the Buddha. In 1911 Besant and her close associate Charles Leadbeater founded the Order of the Star in the East to promote these claims. Highly successful in the years following the First World War, the Order collapsed overnight in 1929 when Krishnamurti courageously disavowed the claims made about him and disbanded it.
The implosion of the Order of the Star in the East nearly shattered the Theosophical Society. Most Theosophical groups outside the English-speaking world quietly disbanded, while Theosophists in Britain, America, Australasia, and India went to ground and carried on their work well out of the limelight. In the meantime, however, dozens of groups inspired by Theosophy or derived from it took over large portions of Theosophical teachings and practice. In the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975, nearly every significant occult secret society in the western world drew on Theosophy as a major (though often uncredited) source. By the 1970s, as occult groups abandoned Theosophical ideas for older or newer teachings, the New Age movement stepped in and adopted Theosophy wholesale.
Several branches of the Theosophical Society remain active today, and the last decade or so has seen a modest growth in Theosophical numbers and activity. While the Society may never again play the dominant role it once had in the occult community, it remains a living tradition with an active publishing program.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006